50 Years Ago This Week – Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake is Missing

Bunny Lake is Missing, the last eminently masterful film from producer-director Otto Preminger (though six more would follow over the next fifteen years) was released on October 3, 1965.  It is very nearly a great movie: the gripping tale, with a smart, witty screenplay was gloriously shot on location in London in striking black and white (including some very fine night-for-night scenes); Preminger’s compositions and camera movements show him at the top of his impressive game. 

Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier, outstanding), is the London cop called on to find the missing child of more-than-just-a-little-misunderstood Ann Lake (Carol Lynley), who lives under the watchful eye of her eerily overprotective brother Steven (Keir Dullea).  But with each passing reel, it seems increasingly likely that the child never existed—and so the investigation, and the mystery, take on deeper meanings.  (As any good follower of Claude Chabrol can tell you, “solving the mystery” doesn’t much matter—in fact for Bunny Lake, in developing the screenplay the production team struggled to settle on an ultimate villain, and eventually went with a character that didn’t even exist in the novel.)     

Bunny Lake 1

Olivier's Investigation is more than Child's Play 

 

Bunny 2

Brother and Sister Share a Smoke

 

Bunny 3

Preminger Fills the Frame

 

bunny 4

Searching for Bunny?

Bunny Lake comes to a head with two surprises near the end.  One works extremely well; the other (actually less surprising) doesn’t, and the movie simply craters in its final fifteen minutes.  But the first ninety minutes or so are just terrific.  Moreover, the movie, and its release date—that hinge-year of 1965, presents a welcome opportunity to talk a bit about its larger-than-life producer-director, who played a fascinating part in the story of the New Hollywood.  Preminger was a trailblazer who helped make the American New Wave possible, but he proved incapable – possibly due to advancing age but almost certainly by disposition as well – to make great films that reflected the aesthetic sensibilities of the late 1960s and beyond.  Tone deaf clunkers like Skidoo (1968) and Such Good Friends (1971) are notable for their clumsiness from the kitchens of a once sure-handed master.  (This tension is hinted at in Bunny Lake, as the British invasion band The Zombies, never actually present in the narrative, keep encroaching on the screen, playing on the radio and even featured on a barroom TV set.)

Preminger is best known in popular culture as the prison camp commandant from Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (though for people of a certain age he will always be Mr. Freeze), as well as for his legendarily tyrannical on-set behavior (he once grabbed a young, terrified actor by the lapels and screamed “Relax!” in an especially ill-fated effort to improve the work of an intimidated performer).  More admirably, Preminger also helped bring about end of the eroding Hollywood Blacklist by hiring (and giving screen credit to) Dalton Trumbo for Exodus. “I will not participate in the blacklist because it is immoral and an illegal extension of the law,” declared Preminger, whose father held a high legal office in Vienna before fleeing Austria in 1938.  (For more on Preminger, and there is much more to tell, check out this essay by David Denby; for still more, there is Foster Hirsch’s excellent biography.)  

But for the New Hollywood – actually, for Hollywood, period – it is Preminger’s films that leave a legacy of lasting and enormous importance, especially his early films noir, and for his brave (if often also commercially savvy) willingness to challenge the Production Code Authority (Hollywood’s self-censorship system) in the 1950s and early 1960s.  Preminger’s noirs begin with the all-time-great Laura, and are followed by the if-you-like-noirs-you’ll-surely-like Whirlpool, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Angel Face.  (Where the Sidewalk Ends features very fine New York City location work, including a sentimental favorite here at Mid Century Cinema, 500 Fifth Avenue.)

Preminger served as producer-director on all of these films, and for more than thirty over the course of his career.  This authority gave him the greater autonomy to pursue projects on topics normally rendered invisible from the screen by the Production Code, relating to sex, drugs, race, and homosexuality.  Notable among these are The Man with the Golden Arm (Frank Sinatra has a monkey on his back), and Advise and Consent (stuffed with great performances, including those by Burgess Meredith and Charles Laughton—his last). 

What Preminger was striving for in these films, and so many others, was a more mature cinema, one that burned to traffic in that which was most forbidden by the censors: moral ambiguity—which would become the hallmark of the seventies film.  The Production Code insisted on a clear distinction between right and wrong, reassurance that American authority and institutions were just and pure, and always, absolutely, on films with moral closure: good invariably triumphing in the end and evil brought to justice. Preminger (and the New Hollywood that followed) in stark contrast, was more interested in exploring morally complex puzzles that presented challenges to imperfect protagonists and compromised institutions, and where the whole good/bad thing was murky, contested, subjective, and open-ended.  His masterpiece of moral ambiguity was Anatomy of a Murder (1959) which slipped past the censors by playing within the letter of the rules while shredding their simple-minded intentions (though the film was briefly banned in Chicago).  Essential viewing.